South Bethany seeks Congressional help in FEMA debate

South Bethany has tugged at its Congressional connections in an effort to induce FEMA to reconsider the proposed Flood Insurance Rate Map (FIRM) — or rather, to disregard South Bethany’s previous communication on the matter.

After the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) initially announced plans to ease the base flood elevation for oceanfront homes, it then responded to a council member’s subsequent inquiry and suggestion to return to the previous flood zone level by raising it to an even higher level.

The maps are scheduled to be enacted on March 16.

At a resident’s urging, the town council wrote to FEMA in December, asking the agency to consider reevaluating and lowering the flood level designation once again.

But by the council’s Feb. 9 workshop, FEMA had not responded, except to say they had received and were reviewing the letter. By the council’s regular meeting on Feb. 13, Mayor Pat Voveris said the state’s members of Congress were already “coming together as a united front to approach FEMA on our behalf, with Congressman Carney’s office leading the charge with support from Sen. Carper’s housing legislative assistant in D.C.”

“South Bethany never intended to file a formal appeal with FEMA and never followed the criteria set by FEMA for a formal appeal,” the council wrote in its letter to the legislators. “Specifically, we ask you to contact FEMA on our behalf to secure an answer to our communication, support our town in asking FEMA to remove what they are calling an appeal, and ask FEMA to revert back to their VE-10 classification, as shown on the FIRM of Aug. 2, 2013.”

The council has hoped to appease property owners upset by the change by encouraging FEMA to remove the appeal and presumably revert to VE-10.

However, “We’re not the experts,” Voveris said. “We didn’t make an appeal, and we just want FEMA to make an analysis that’s fair and consistent. We’re not in the business to make a determination.”

In a Feb. 6 email to the town council, property owners from at least seven households on the oceanfront of Ocean Drive wrote, “We hold [Town Council] responsible for the damaging reversal of the BFE on our properties,” which they said they felt was “done without conversation with the public.”

After having a BFE of 12 feet for possibly decades, some residents enjoyed a brief taste of lowered restrictions, and they now expect council to take “all avenues necessary” to get the zone back to 10 feet.

The inquiry and the phone call

At the meeting, Junkin reviewed the history of the issue.

“Back in October of 2012, some FEMA maps were sent to South Bethany that showed areas up on the west of Ocean Drive to be in the X zone, or completely out of the flood zone. At that time, I don’t think council even realized what was going on,” Junkin said. “[DNREC’s] Michael Powell talked to FEMA and maybe some people in the town office about how it didn’t make any sense. … So the old maps were pulled back,” he said and new ones were issued.

But in redrawing the FIRMs in August of 2013, FEMA eased up on the oceanfront land, dropping them from VE-12 to a VE-10 zone. When the maps became effective in March of 2015, new houses could be built closer to the ground, or people could save more on insurance costs because their current house was suddenly 2 feet higher above base flood elevation.

When Junkin drafted another “inquiry” about FEMA’s method for mapping, he said Powell and Councilman Jim Gross had suggested asking about the VE-10 zone.

“My comment was that I didn’t have any data,” Junkin said, but he submitted photos of storm damage, as well as elevation data and comments from Powell. “We believed that VE-10 didn’t make any sense. If it was VE-10, you would get overwash on Ocean Drive … a place that floods quite often, like [2009 nor’easter] Nor’Ida.”

Junkin’s April 2014 letter said the oceanfront homes “should be VE-12,” and that a southern chunk of land should remain AO-2, not become AE-7.

He said he did not realize FEMA’s official 90-day appeal period for the maps had begun.

“I was thinking we were in the same kind of mode that we were in when the X zone was changed to an AO zone, that it wasn’t an appeal — we believed FEMA had something wrong with their analysis. So we sent that information in,” Junkin said.

After that, there was a conference call between FEMA, Junkin, Powell and engineering firm URS “talking about why we felt they had made a mistake,” Junkin said. “Mike Powell told them things they could do to end up with a different answer. So they took that to believe the Town of South Bethany was supporting that.”

“So they thought we would like the result,” Caputo said.

FEMA took that to be an official appeal and changed the pending VE-10 zone to VE-13 instead, above even the VE-12 it had originally designated.

Gross and Junkin agreed that council is “hung on that point” that the unpopular VE-13 resulted from FEMA’s re-evaluation after Junkin’s letter.

“I’ll say it’s our fault that FEMA looked at it, but we had nothing to do with the analysis that resulted in VE-13,” Junkin said. “We do not have the [data] to do such analysis.”

Callaway asked if the recommendation was done “in the best interest of the South Bethany property owners.”

“I believe it was,” Junkin said. “I believe you should know what storms to expect. And historical data says we have those kind of storms.

“The homeowners want us to try to cause it to go back to VE-10,” Junkin said. “I do not see how there’s any scientific data that can make it go back to VE-10, unless we can get them to count the dunes, which their rules say you’re not allowed to count.”

The Town and the people

“Owners came forward citing grave financial impact on flood insurance premiums due to this reclassification to 13 feet from 10 feet,” the Town wrote to the Congressional delegation.

“I am sympathetic to the financial impact, but that’s not why [FEMA] is going to make a decision,” Voveris noted. “What they’re about is proper protection and proper evaluation. It’s for their liability when the storm hits and there’s damage. I don’t think they care very much about financial impact to the homeowner.”

“We want [FEMA] to answer the correspondence. We don’t want to tell FEMA what the answer should be,” Gross said. “We don’t want to get council all involved in the technical details,” but simply to “respond to the people.”

The council considered asking to be judged the same as neighboring towns but feared FEMA might use that as a reason to change the FIRM in other towns.

“We don’t want to affect other towns,” Caputo warned.

Gross suggested that FEMA didn’t consider the reconstructed sand dunes because of debate of whether there is established vegetation.

If South Bethany just rejects the maps, it could be dropped from the National Flood Insurance Program. With the March 16 implementation of the maps just weeks away, South Bethany may have to file an official Letter of Map Revision with FEMA.